The Norman Virgin of Wilmington

Norman Madonna IV

An earlier post on traipsing about the Sussex Downs triggered thoughts on one of my favorite places in East Sussex, the church of St Mary and St Peter in Wilmington. You can find this village nestled between the A27 and the Downs, between Lewes and Polegate. Its most famous feature is a hill drawing, the Long Man of Wilmington, but this little church is fascinating.


St. Mary and St. Peter was founded in 1,000 AD and was associated with a nearby Benedictine Priory, the ruins of which are visible today. In the churchyard looms an ancient yew tree, girded by chains Jacob Marley would envy (or not) and propped up by planks. The yew is reputed to be at least 1600 years old. It’s a big tree.

The church feature that I’m most drawn to is a small carved figure you spot when facing the altar and looking left. It’s on the chancel wall, above an arched window. There’s no clear means of knowing who it represents, but, according to a church note,  some believe it to be an early Norman representation of the Virgin Mary. I find the carving, in its placement and in its simplicity, touching.

Norman Madonna II
Apologies for the poor quality.

Normally, I resist taking photos inside of churches. I decided on this rule while I was in St Peter’s Basilica one day. I was hovering near a side chapel where a priest was saying Mass, and I noticed a fellow tourist snapping pics of the priest and his flock. Despite my own enthusiasm about the scene, that action struck me as intrusive. However, I do own up to taking photos in churches that prompt an emotional response–because there’s something I find extraordinarily compelling–and I like to be reminded of that once in a while.

FYI: Here’s an oldish, essay-long overview of the development of Marian cults in Anglo-Saxon culture: “Mary’s Advent in Anglo-Saxon England.”

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